Kamala Das and her poetry

Kamala Das
By Renate Papke

“Let us invade the brothels and rescue the children! The victims of rape are children!”

An Introduction
My Grandmother’s House
Biography and Publications

“Kamala Das was awarded the Chimanlal Award for fearless journalism in 1986.”
Kamala Das was born in Malabar/Kerala on March 31st, 1934 into a well off aristocratic Hindu family of the matrilineal Nair society. She was the only girl among her parents’ five children. In her early infancy, she was mothered by her maternal grandmother because her mother spent more time writing poetry about mothering than practising it. Kamala Das was uprooted when her family went to Calcutta where her father was working. She was educated at home, attended a Catholic boarding school, and at the age of fifteen she was married to her mother’s brother K. Madhava Das.

In the matrilineal Nair society, girls are married to their maternal uncles in order to keep the property within the family. Das was sixteen when her first child was born. She has three sons. In her poetry and her autobiography, she describes the relationship to her husband as brutal and
indulgent. Her husband developed a close friendship to another man. He supported her freedom and her writing, even when she was criticised for her sexually charged poetry and her unabashed autobiography. It is often the fate of confessional poets that the author is conflated with the poetic persona.

In the 1970s, Das entered politics with a campaign for an indigenous green movement. She travelled throughout the countryside soliciting votes from the people in the villages. She failed to win a seat in Parliament, but she was awarded the Chimanlal Award for
fearless journalism in 1986. She is currently the author of a syndicated column in India in which she writes against hypocrisy and corruption in private and public life and campaigns for women’s issues and childcare.

In 1999, Kamala Das converted to Islam and changed her name to Kamala Surayya. In several interviews, she has maintained that Islam and purdah provide women with security and protection. Kamala Das has published several novels and short stories in her mother tongue Malayalam and in English under her pen name Madhavikutty. For poetry, she only uses English. Her collections of poetry include Summer in Calcutta (1965), The Descendants (1967), The Old Playhouse and Other Poems (1973), Tonight This Savage This Savage Rite: The Love Poetry of Kamala Das and Pritish Nandy (1979), Collected Poems (1984), Only the Soul Knows How To Sing (1996). Her autobiography My Story appeared in 1976. She was awarded several highly acclaimed prizes for literature and received an Honourary Doctorate by the World Academy of Arts and Culture, Taiwan, 1984.

Kamala Das and her Poetry
“Kamala Das’s most remarkable achievement, however, is writing in an Indian English.”
Kamala Das once said that she tried to imitate her mother Nalapat Balamani Amma (born 1909), who was a well-known poet writing traditional poetry in her mother tongue which was Kerala. Already at an early age, Kamala Das turned to writing poetry influenced by her maternal granduncle, the scholar-poet Nalapatt Narayana Menon. Balamani Amma translated a small collection of her poetry into English and wrote in her foreword: “My life that slowly unfolds its petals amidst the dazzling light is honeyed with poetry...I have tried my best throughout these
poems to keep my optimism undimmed” (in Sanjuhta Das 1978, 196).

Her daughter’s poetry stands in sharp contrast to this sweet and sublime view. Kamala Das’s first publication in the early 1960s caused a breakthrough for confessional poetry by women written in a seemingly colloquial English language. In Modern Indian Poetry in English (rev.ed. 2004), Bruce King stakes a large claim for Das’ poetry:
Kamala Das’ most remarkable achievement, however, is writing in an Indian English. Often her vocabulary, idioms, choice of verbs and some syntactical constructions are part of what has been termed the Indianization of English. This is an accomplishment. It is important in the development of a national literature that writers free themselves from the linguistic standards of their colonizers and create a literature based on local speech; and it is especially important for women writers. Such a development is not a matter of national pride or a linguistic equivalent of
‘local colour’; rather it is a matter of voice, tone, idiom and rhythm, creating a style that accurately reflects what a writer feels or is trying to say instead of it being filtered through speech meant to reflect the assumptions and nuances of another society. (2004, 153)

According to Eunice de Souza in Nine Indian Women Poets – An Anthology (1997), women writers owe a special debt to Kamala Das. “She mapped out the terrain for post-colonial women in social and linguistic terms” (“My Grandmother’s House”).  Kamala Das writes about previously forbidden or ignored emotions, sexual needs within and outside marriage, suffering and shame caused by freedom and honesty. Other topics are the power politics in relationships, the instability of feelings, disappointment and depression caused by the division between body and soul, sexuality and love, and she often writes about death. Alongside these seemingly self-centred investigations, she expresses her sensibility for social injustice. Like her poetic foremother Sarojini Naidu, she moved from poetry to politics in the cause of social concerns.

Representation of Mothering and Children in her Poetry
In general, Kamala Das did not integrate her own motherhood and her children into her fiction and poetry. I found only one poem, “My Son’s Teacher,” about her four-year old son who witnessed the sudden death of his young woman teacher at school and could not understand it. A short story “Rice Pudding”, which she wrote in Malayalam under her pen name Madhavikutty and translated into English, tells about the sudden death of a young mother and its impact on the life of her husband and her three small children (Tharu, Lalita, Volume II, 1993: 395–397).

In Kamala Das’s life, the mother was almost absent. As a child, she watched her mother “write poetry lying on her bed all day long” (Tharu, Lalita, Volume II, 1993: 393). The maternal grandmother became the substitute mother who provided the familiar, secure, loving home. Das’ memories return to the happy security of childhood at her grandmother’s great house whenever she is depressed by her present insecurity. But she also remembers the lies which intrude into this idyllic time. Her poetry about prejudice, hypocrisy, social injustice, is an act of
resistance, of maternal politics against silencing and oppression.
Kamala Das, born 1934, was an adolescent when India gained Independence in 1947. Although Gandhi encouraged women to participate in the non-violent nationalist struggle, nationalism opposed social reforms for women and their participation in politics. Indian nationalists, who had received western education, accepted the western separation of the public as political and the private as apolitical realm. Women were confined to the private sphere and charged with the preservation of tradition. Women had to dress, talk and behave in a way that distinguished them from western women.

Normally mothers prepare their children for the difficult transition from childhood to adulthood. They help them to assume their role in society. Kamala Das was on her own in this period which she recalls in her poem “An Introduction.”

The title is open for several interpretations: “a formal personal presentation of one person to another or to a group or to the general public, the insertion of knowledge or experience, a preliminary part leading up to the main part” (Webster 2001, 428–429).

An Introduction
I don’t know politics but I know the names
Of those in power, and I can repeat them like
Days of week, or names of months, beginning with
Nehru. I am Indian, very brown, born in
Malabar, I speak three languages, write in
Two, dream in one. Don’t write in English, they said,
English is not your mother-tongue. Why not leave
Me alone? critics, friends, visiting cousins,
Every one of you? Why not let me speak in
Any language I like? The language I speak
Becomes mine, its distorsions, its queernesses
All mine, mine alone. It is half English, half
Indian, funny perhaps, but it is honest,
It is human as I am human, don’t
You see? It voices my joys, my longings, my
Hopes, and it is useful to me as cawing
Is to crows or roaring to the lions, it
Is human speech, the speech of the mind that is
Here and not there, a mind that sees and hears and
Is aware. Not the deaf, blind speech
Of trees in storm or of monsoon clouds or of rain or the
Incoherent mutterings of the blazing
Funeral pyre. I was child, and later they
Told me I grew, for I became tall, my limbs
Swelled and one or two places sprouted hair. When
I asked for love, not knowing what else to ask
For, he drew a youth of sixteen into the
Bedroom and closed the door. He did not beat me
But my sad woman-body felt so beaten.
The weight of my breasts and womb crushed me. I shrank
pitifully. Then ...I wore a shirt and my
Brother’s trousers, cut my hair short and ignored
My womanliness. Dress in sarees, be girl
Be wife, they said. Be embroiderer, be cook,
Be a quarreller with servants. Fit in. Oh,
Belong, cried the categorizers. Don’t sit
On walls or peep in through our lace-draped windows.
Be Amy, or be Kamala. Or, better
Still, be Madhavikutty. It is time to
Choose a name, a role. Don’t play pretending games.
Don’t play at schizophrenia or be a
Nympho. Don’t cry embarrassingly loud when
Jilted in love...I met a man, loved him. Call
Him not by any name, he is every man
Who wants a woman, just as I am every
Woman who seeks love. In him...The hungry haste
Of rivers, in me ...the oceans’ tireless
Waiting. Who are you, I ask each and everyone,
The answer is, it is I. Anywhere and,
Everywhere, I see the one who calls himself
If in this world, he is tightly packed like the
Sword in its sheath. It is I who drink lonely
Drinks at twelve, midnight, in hotels of strange towns,
It is I who laugh, it is I who make love
And then, feel shame, it is I who lie dying
With a rattle in my throat. I am sinner,
I am saint. I am the beloved and the
Betrayed. I have no joys which are not yours, no
Aches which are not yours. I too call myself I.

My analysis would change the impersonal title “An Introduction” to “My Initiation into Modern Indian Society”. A woman, who is also a poet, instructs her daughter how she developed her concept of identity against the cultural expectations of Indian womanhood. She knows that most children do not listen to their parents and are bored when talk takes too much time. Therefore she limits her narrative poem to 59 lines, in which she develops a whole series of identities and experience.

The speaker of the poem introduces herself as a member of Indian society and enumerates the usual data, nationality: Indian, race: person of colour, “very brown”, place of birth: “Malabar”. Only the confession that she is ignorant of politics, but able to repeat the name of politicians like a child, hints ironically at her gender. In this respect, she meets the expectations of Indian society at the time of Independence. But then she opposes the claims of Indian nationalists for an Indian language. She asserts her freedom to express herself – and probably to dream as well – in an Indianised English which is alive in contrast to the “deaf, blind speech” of traditional images and metaphors taken from Indian nature and culture: “trees in storm”, “monsoon clouds”, “the incoherent muttering of the blazing / Funeral pyre”.

The poet defends her individual, “funny perhaps”, “honest”, “useful” speech as human and universal. From the development of her mind, she then turns to the changes of her body during puberty and pregnancy, for which she had not been prepared (“and later they told me”). She dares to mention secondary sex characteristics (“and one or two places sprouted hair”). She is helpless and pitiful confronted with her “woman-body” and “the weight of breasts and womb”. Although her homosexual husband probably does not use physical violence (“he did not beat me”), she feels beaten by his infidelity. The poem’s second part tells about resistance. The speaker of the poem lays claim to rights and freedom of men. She rebels against the imposition of feminine looks and docility. She adopts a male appearance or that of a westernised Indian woman (“I wore a shirt and my / Brothers trousers, cut my hair short”). She seeks sex and love outside marriage, but she cannot enjoy them without shame. In making her experience universal, she assumes her identity as a human individual (“he is every man who wants a woman, just as I am every / Woman who seeks love”, “I too call myself I”). This introduction, this initiation speaks about the difficulties of growing up and prepares the way to adulthood.

I remember that Kamala Das has been called “a natural poet […] Always a hitor-miss poet, who wrote regularly but trusted the muse more than revision” (King 2004, 147). Regarding the poem “An Introduction”, a closer analysis of her poetical techniques contradicts this commentary. This long poem of fifty-nine lines of slightly irregular length presents itself as a monologue in front of an imagined audience. The colloquial language and run-on sentences create a natural speech rhythm, which is emphasised by the use of rhetorical questions and remembered imperatives. This form of a dialogue builds up a complex relationship between self and other. In the first part, the pronoun “I” stands against “they”, “you”, “everyone”, “each”. In the end, the “I” documents the found identity. Yet, the “I” does not only refer to the individual experience but to everyone who knows the universal human experience of frustration, pain and joy. Das’ language achieves connections through assonance and alliteration: “critics, friends, visiting cousins.”

She uses internal rhymes for emphasis at crucial points: “Here and not there, a mind that sees and hears and / Is aware.” “I am sinner, I am saint. I am the beloved and the / Betrayed.” The poem consists of two main parts of equal length. The second part begins with “Then...”, which can be read here as both adverb and conjunction.

It introduces the time of a new beginning as the consequence of what has been said before. It is packed with remembered imperatives from her social environment, from “categorizers”, which prescribe women’s traditional roles in Indian society. The speaker of the poem rejects these instructions. She wears male clothes in daily life. In her poetry, she adopts male images and metaphor for herself.

In Contemporary Indian Poetry in English (1990), Lakshmi Raghunandan points out that Kamala Das alters and inverts the traditional love theme when she writes that “he” is “the hungry haste / Of rivers’ while ‘she’ is ‘the oceans’ tireless / Waiting” (1990, 68). The poet uses a traditionally male imagery to articulate an aspect of female sexuality and sexual desire. Kamala Das shows that a woman poet’s conflict with poetic tradition is not only one of content, but there is a corresponding uneasiness with inherited imagery. Many western feminist poets have also expressed their discontent with poetic tradition and language.

In Stealing the Language – The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America (1986), Alicia Suskin Ostriker points at women poets’ appropriation of language already in the title. Radical feminist poets abandon male images, metaphor and myth. Kamala Das just occupies them. This is a more liberating act. A psychoanalytically minded critic might interpret this poem as an account of female psychic and sexual development.

My approach includes the historical and regional context as well as a text-guided analysis with an inclination towards liberal humanism that reads the text as a transparently crafted poem containing all the meanings of an introduction mentioned above. On the one hand, it is a young woman’s initiation into the Indian post-colonial society. On the other hand, it introduces the western reader into some aspects of the social situation and the poetic heritage of the Indian woman poet.

My Grandmother’s House
There is a house now far away where once
I received love.......That woman died,
The house withdrew into silence, snakes moved
Among books I was then too young
To read, and my blood turned cool like the moon
How often I think of going
There, to peer through blind eyes of windows or
Just listen to the frozen air,
Or in wild despair, pick an armful of
Darkness to bring it here to lie
Behind my bedroom door like a brooding
Dog.......you cannot believe, darling.
Can you, that I lived in such a house and
Was proud, and loved.......I who have lost
My way and beg now at strangers’ doors to
Receive love, at least in small change?

This poem prepares the reading of the next poem and shall only briefly be analysed. It is a poem about the innocent love of childhood and the sexual desire and frustration of the present time. Beginning like a fairy tale, the poem’s first sentence seems to celebrate domesticity and happiness; but it turns into an elegy of loss, decay and mourning.  

“A dead woman, a silent house with blind windows, snakes among the books” describe a perished world. Confronted with the nightmare of decay, the speaker is paralysed and driven to despair. The repetition of o and u-sounds creates a tune of wailing and mourning. The demonstrative pronouns and adjectives evoke the impression of a speaker staring into the darkness trying to overcome the gap between present and past. The poem leads the reader’s imagination into a small place that is filled with meaning. In the next poem, this place is connected with death and social critique.

Nani the pregnant maid hanged herself
In the privy one day. For three long hours
Until the police came, she was hanging there
A clumsy puppet, and when the wind blew
Turning her gently on the rope, it seemed
To us who were children then, that Nani
Was doing, to delight us, a comic
Dance.....The shrubs grew fast. Before the summer’s end,
The yellow flowers had hugged the doorway
and the walls. The privy, so abandoned,
Became an altar then, a lonely shrine
For a goddess who was dead. Another
Year or two, and, I asked my grandmother
One day, don’t you remember Nani, the dark
Plump one who bathed me near the well? Grandmother
Shifted the reading glasses on her nose
And stared at me. Nani, she asked, who is she?
With that question ended Nani. Each truth
Ends thus with a query. It is this designated
Deafness that turns mortality into
Immortality, the definite into
The soft indefinite. They are lucky
Who ask questions and move on before
The answers come, those wise ones who reside
In a blue silent zone, unscratched by doubts
For theirs is the clotted peace embedded
In life, like music in the Koel’s egg,
Like lust in the blood, or like the sap in a tree....

The speaker of the poem recalls the suicide of a pregnant servant in her grandmother’s
house and the silencing of this tragedy. The woman, who had been a doll for her seducer, remains a doll in her death. For the children who cannot understand the situation, she seems to be a puppet hanging on a rope. Then yellow flowers overgrow the place of the tragedy. It is customary to honour the dead with flowers at funerals, to associate mourning with flowers. Flowers grow on graves and preserve the memory of the dead which the adults deny: “I asked my grandmother / One day, don’t you remember Nani...Nani, she asked, who is she?”

Grandmother’s question ends Nani’s existence, but initiates wide-ranging meditations about truth. For this purpose, the language changes from statements to the rhetoric of a sermon. Beginning with the observation that the grandmother answered her question with a question, the speaker of the poem considers the relativity of truth. Truth is always relative and has to be questioned. But her grandmother’s attitude has another background. The grandmother who pretends not to remember turns a fact (mortality) into a condition or quality (immortality), something precise and certain into something vague, comfortable and weak. The speaker of the poem does not generalise about the position of her grandmother.

In spite of her anger and repulsion, she does not use statements or definitions but works with similes. Those who regard themselves as being in possession of the truth inhabit a peace similar to death. The images of the last lines depict the polarity of life and death. The negative “clotted peace” refers to coagulated blood at the end of life, but it is also compared to “music in the Koel’s egg”.

In Indian mythology, the Koel or the cuckoo is the image of Krishna. The bird’s call awakens nature as Krishna’s flute arouses vitality. This bird always usurps the nests of other birds. The Koel’s egg hints at music which must be detected. The same applies to “lust in the blood” and “sap of the tree” which promises life when it is revealed and used. The poem Nani becomes a powerful indictment against complacency, indifference and rigidity. The very practice of remembering is an act of resistance and suggests a rethinking of society itself. Kamala Das continues this work in her present column:
Let us invade the brothels and rescue the children!
Perverts are on the increase in my home state, Kerala. Newspapers are no longer squeamish about reporting indiscriminate rapes. The victims are invariably children.
[...] Till recent times, we were not acquainted with crime. During feudal times I was a little child and could not connect the death of any poor girl of the locality with crime. The rich men threw them into wells when they became conspicuously pregnant. Morality in those days meant the effective concealment of crime. But those pillars of society spared little girls. [...] Child prostitution was not to be discussed.

Seventy per cent of the inmates of Indian brothels are children below 15. It is still not time to discuss the problem. It was brave of the People’s Council for So cial Justice, UNICEF and the National Women’s Commission to organise a seminar in Cochin to discuss the problem of child prostitution. There were more men than women in the auditorium. [...] At last week’s seminar there were papers read, speeches made all with appropriate passion and fury. But is the child prostitute going to benefit from this verbiage? Would it not be wiser to invade the brothels in a
strong group and rescue the children from their humiliating bondage? [...] Until recent
times children were not taught the facts of life. At the time of marriage, the bride- to-be is not told what kind of a contract she would be entering into. She is not told about the duties of a wife. How does society expect her to be an exemplary wife? (Internet Source (1): http://www.rediff/com/style/1996/1011das.htm)

Kamala Das’ poetry and journalism about the role of women in modern Indian society and about social injustice result in maternal politics, in criticism of male violence, but also in harsh critique of upper-class women’s complicity with caste and class oppression and lack of solidarity between women.

Kamala Das’ poem “Nani” and her column remind me of women in refugee camps in Africa who have been systematically gang-raped and infected with HIV. Many of them are now dying slow, painful deaths from AIDS. Their testimonies speak of the shame, stigma and pain. Many women are caring for children left orphaned by the genocide. These children will be left orphaned for a second time.

Rape and HIV have become military tools and weapons in modern warfare. During my work in Darfur, some local colleagues discussed the issue of gender violence – this is the official term now. One young man maintained that rape is a tradition, not a crime in some regions. The answer is “No”. It is an abominable crime and the contempt of the female body begins with the sexual abuse of children in brothels.

Kamala Das states in her column that Indian newspapers now report about rape. In many other countries this is not possible. Victims or persons speaking for them are often accused of provocation or defamation. The roles of victim and perpetrator are reversed. In “Woman Skin Deep: Feminism and the Postcolonial Condition” (1992), the Pakistani feminist literary critic and activist Sara Suleri reports the experience of a fifteen-year-old woman in Pakistan who was raped by two men of her own family, forced to confession of fornication and sentenced to hundred lashes in public (768). Analysing Pakistani law, Suleri examines the lived experience of women whose bodies are directly afflicted with them. Suleri and Das both criticise that women are not informed about the customary laws that affect them in their daily life. Suleri connects this experience with the local socio-historical context of Pakistani laws and the global political situation:
It is not the terrors of Islam that have unleashed the Hudood Ordinances on Pakistan, but more probably the U.S. government’s economic and ideological support of a military regime during that bloody but eminently forgotten decade marked by the ‘liberation’ of Afghanistan. (1992, 768) Thus, Kamala Das’ poems and her column initiated a discussion about the dichotomy
between the local and the global which is a main concern of transnational and global feminist theory and politics.

(Source: Poems at the Edge of Differences: Mothering in New English Poetry by Women, Erschienen im Universitätsverlag Göttingen 2008)